Journalists close ranks on bodily autonomy and integrity (BAI)

Moses Magadza in Johannesburg, South Africa

A two-day workshop for mostly senior journalists from East and Southern Africa has rallied media practitioners to accurately and consistently report on bodily autonomy and integrity (BAI) while holding duty bearers to account on their obligations in this regard.

BAI refers to the ability of all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation to make decisions over their bodies without interference or coercion.

While BAI may appear basic and a given, it remains out of reach for millions of people all over the world, according to a landmark 2021 State of World Population report titled: ‘My Body is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self Determination’.

The report shows that bodily autonomy and integrity remains elusive for nearly half of women in 57 countries. This, even as experts are in agreement that having agency over one’s body is not only the bedrock to gender equality and human rights, but is also linked to many aspects of health and life.

On the 26th and 27th May, 2022, the Aids & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) convened a workshop for the media in Johannesburg, South Africa. ARASA’s Acting Director Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo said the workshop was a build-up on a three-day virtual regional training held for the media last year which focused on Human Rights and the Law.

Chingore-Munazvo said ARASA had commissioned the development of a toolkit to serve as a resource for journalists within the sub-region when reporting on BAI issues. Last week’s workshop thus sought to strengthen the capacity of journalists to articulate BAI issues and to validate the toolkit.

Through highly interactive sessions, delegates exchanged views on how to write accurate, un-stigmatising and unbiased articles on BAI and to cover issues related to Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), structural barriers, criminalisation of HIV and key and vulnerable populations at national and regional levels.

They also discussed the intersectionality of human rights and how to provide coverage that is sensitive and ethical while identifying and investigating human rights violations against vulnerable populations in southern and east Africa. Additionally, they identified laws and policies which inhibit the rights of key and vulnerable populations and discussed how to collaborate with national and regional civil society organisations (CSOs).

In separate interviews, many of the delegates said the workshop had been empowering and they were determined to make a difference.

Teboho Khatebe Molefi, News Editor at Public Eye newspaper in Maseru, Lesotho, said the workshop had challenged him to do more.

“As journalists we oftentimes report on human rights and gender-related issues without understanding and appreciating the breadth of bodily autonomy and integrity in our reports – the power and right to make own choices about own bodies – which are grounded in gender equality and human rights, and are necessary for empowerment and to achieve set Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” he said.

He said the workshop enabled him to appreciate “that many people are being denied the right to decide to use contraceptives of their choice or seek health care, which is a violation of bodily autonomy – which should be a fundamental right for all”.

He confessed that until the workshop, he had taken gender and choice issues lightly and had glossed over them.

“I have been elevated to a space in which to ensure sentient reportage of incidents of violation of individuals’ bodily autonomy and integrity, as well as helping in sensitizing my newsroom team of the same. There is now an opportunity for my media house to contribute positively towards respect for bodily autonomy and integrity,” Molefi, who is also the interim Chairperson of the Editors Forum of Lesotho, said.

He called for regular communication between participating editors and national networks for ongoing training of media personnel.

Achille Jacques, the Chief Editor of Scope Magazine of Le Mauricien Ltd in Mauritius, said the workshop had been a continuation of what began in the regional training on BAI of 2021.

He said the workshop had helped him “to identify new angles to write about bodily autonomy and integrity”.

He called for a strong sub-regional platform to encourage collaboration and sharing of best practices.

Aunicio da Silva, the Editorial Director at Ikweli Newspaper in Nampula, Mozambique, said the workshop had impacted him mightily.

“I was able to get a sense of what is going on in the region about the human rights situation of key populations, including sexual minorities. Also, I was sensitized about bodily autonomy and integrity. The need for joint work between the various countries must be taken into account, because the situation is not the best in the region,” he said.Nomtandazo Nkambule, News Editor at Eswatini Observer in Eswatini, felt the workshop reinforced the need for journalists to report accurately and effectively on issues of bodily autonomy and integrity.

“It encouraged us to look for many diverse angles on BAI issues and be able to develop beautiful comprehensive stories. It further reiterated the media’s role of being a voice for the voiceless. It prompted me to do more bodily autonomy and integrity stories that are well balanced,” she said.

She pledged to forge a working relationship with some organisations representing minority groups “and try to develop stories of their plight; what issues are a problem to them and hold those responsible to account”.

She called for sustained engagement between ARASA and the media to nurture the momentum built at the workshop.

Silence Charumbira, Deputy Editor at Lesotho Times and Sunday Express described the workshop as “eye-opening”.

He said: “It made me realise some of the common mistakes that we make, particularly in terms of language and coverage. I am more alive to the need to give a voice to marginalised people in terms of their bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights.”

He challenged civic society to upscale its engagement with the media.

“It is imperative to find other ways of mainstreaming reporting on these issues that are often shunned by newsrooms. The engagements must be ongoing. It is not an event but a lengthy process,” he opined.

Phemelo Ramasu, Senior Reporter on the Features and Entertainment beat at Botswana Guardian said the workshop “and the well-researched sessions really opened my eyes to a whole experience” when it comes to reporting.

“Issues of bodily autonomy are underreported, yet they have a big impact on society. Until the past week, bodily autonomy was just a fancy word for me. It took this session to broaden my knowledge of this subject,” she stated.

She pledged to do more towards framing bodily autonomy and integrity issues.

“I see myself reporting more on issues around bodily autonomy and integrity. I am looking forward to doing extensive features backed by experts and people on the ground who are or have been neglected and suffered discrimination,” she said but admitted that much still needed to be done by media practitioners.

“For starters, I have to expand my knowledge around the subject, read and interact with relevant stakeholders. I also need to familiarise myself with laws and important key dates,” she noted. Ramasu said journalists had their work cut out.

“We need to keep that conversation going by educating and having serious discussions with relevant stakeholders and leaders around this subject. Its high time that we have difficult conversations with our leaders,” she suggested.

Vidya Gappy, a journalist with Nation newspaper in Seychelles, said the workshop made her realize that her country was “slowly moving in a good direction and the media is free to write on any subject they want”.

She added: “It was also good to learn about the difficulties of other countries. We all have a role to play in promoting human rights and this workshop helped us understand our role better and how powerful we are. As journalists we should work together to be more educated on BAI and be more open- minded.” The journalists welcomed the toolkit but urged those developing it to make it simple, pragmatic and in sync with relevant model laws and regional commitments that support bodily autonomy and integrity.

-Moses Magadza is a doctoral student with research interests in framing, agenda setting, (re)presentation and social justice.


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